When Dr. Foley and I started in North Korea ministry 15 years ago, certain Learned Men And Women Who Think About NK were opining, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, that North Korea would collapse any day. Preparing for unification, they insisted, was the urgent order of the day.
Meanwhile, other Learned Men And Women Who Think About NK were opining, as if it were the only responsible opinion to hold, that the physical needs of North Korean citizens were so urgent that funneling anything less than massive immediate resources into emergency aid in cooperation with the North Korean government would be a moral crime against humanity.
Still other Learned Men And Women Who Think About NK were insisting that nothing would change in North Korea without outside agitation designed to amplify agitation inside North Korea. The overthrow of the North Korean government and the promotion of democracy were the urgent matters demanding attention of governments, media, and North Korean defectors.
Finally, other Learned Men And Women Who Think About NK noted that North Korea was hemorrhaging people–defectors, refugees, sex-trafficked women–and that nursing that bloodletting, through a modern underground railroad, required all of our energy and attention.
These groups didn’t agree on very much back then, and fifteen years later (with North Korea still in business, it’s worth noting), they still don’t.
But one thing that Learned Men And Women Who Think About NK have generally agreed upon is that it is neither urgent nor prudent to spend one’s time, energy, and money to drop Bibles from the sky, broadcast Scripture over the radio, and pepper North Korea and Asia with itinerant Christian preachers who risk their lives (and the lives of the those willing to learn from them) to evangelize and disciple North Koreans.
This is not to say that the aforementioned groups are hostile to the gospel. It has been my experience that they generally regard it as a kind of Happy Meal toy that is nice to add to the Big Mac of serious NK work. Thus, we get along quite nicely with all of the above groups, though no one gets too alarmed if we’re not at the Grownups Table at important North Korea meetings.
I am not troubled by this, and in fact, I expect it. I expect the world to do world-type things and governments to do government-type things and fundraisers to do fundraiser-type things.
But what has surprised me over the past fifteen years is the light regard many Christians have for the ministry of spreading the gospel in North Korea. If they do not view it as a kind of optional Happy Meal toy, many Christians nevertheless regard the gospel as rather a fragile thing, not altogether suitable for (or even capable of) carrying the heavy freight of world change.
That is no doubt in part because this is how many Christians experience the gospel in their own lives: As a deeply personal thing. As my truth. As practical advice for marriage, family, and career. But bringing the gospel to a gun fight–I mean, an honest-to-goodness shoot-em-up at the edge of the world? Better off with a butter knife.
Fifteen years into this particular gun fight, however, I’d want to let all Christians know: I have no regrets about spending all my time seeking to get North Koreans on the heaven train rather than the Seoul train. I’ve seen the Seoul train jump the tracks far too many times.
But the heaven train? When the Bible says that the Word of God never returns void or empty, I can testify that in the darkest lives in the darkest corner of the earth in one of the darkest deepest evils yet emerging to slouch towards Bethlehem, the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot put it out.
“What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it?” asked Jesus. “It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”
Is the gospel the smallest hope for North Korea, when compared to United Nations human rights reports, humanitarian aid, USBs topped off with K-Pop and Korean dramas, well-funded radio broadcasts spewing political news and commentary, cultural/educational/business/technology exchanges, and trains to Seoul, New York, and all points West?
Yes, of course it is. But never mistake small for fragile, or big, loud, learned, and well-funded for effective. Because as a Christian you should never forget that the only thing that bears fruit is the seed that falls to the ground and dies.
It’s the one thing that has never disappointed. And it never will.
Especially in North Korea.